Legendary Washington lawyer and presidential adviser Clark M. Clifford and his law partner Robert A. Altman agreed today to forfeit $5 million to settle charges by the Federal Reserve Board in the complex BCCI case, marking the final chapter in the government's nine-year pursuit of the two men.
The Fed had charged Clifford, 91, a counselor to Democratic presidents since the days of Harry S. Truman, and Altman, his younger protege, with knowing that the shadowy Bank of Credit and Commerce International secretly owned First American Bankshares Inc. and lying to regulators about it.
For nearly a decade, bank regulators, the Justice Department and the district attorney of New York (where BCCI had an office) tried to determine the relationship between BCCI, a global bank owned by Middle Easterners who were not allowed to own a U.S. bank, and Clifford and Altman.
The case spawned congressional investigations and hearings at which the courtly Clifford, stooped and slowed by age and carrying his trademark fedora, confidently proclaimed his innocence, saying he had been duped by his Middle Eastern clients. "Apparently we were deceived," Clifford told the House Banking Committee in 1990.
Altman, now 50, ran the day-to-day operations of First American but was perhaps better known as the husband of actress Lynda Carter, who played Wonder Woman on television.
Under the settlement, the two men will forfeit First American stock that had been held by a trustee, but they will get to keep most of the proceeds -- nearly $15 million -- from their First American tenure.
Altman also agreed not to participate in the banking industry again without the Fed's approval. The board dropped a similar action against Clifford, who is bedridden with numerous ailments.
Denizens of Washington's political and legal establishment have debated why Clifford, who had already made both his name and his fortune, would take on shady clients and the running of a bank in his seventies. He told The Washington Post that he made the decision not to replicate the pattern of many of his cronies.
"A lot of them go to Florida and disappear," he said of his colleagues. "Some of them just sit on the front porch and rock and wait to die. That didn't appeal to me either."
The charges settled today involved the Fed's contention that Clifford and Altman lied when they told the regulators that BCCI would have no role in running First American. But the Fed dropped its original charges that the two men knew that BCCI illegally acquired First American through straw shareholders.
"When this case arose seven years ago, we publicly denounced the sensational charges against us as wholly untrue," Altman said in a statement on behalf of himself and Clifford. "Subsequent events have proven the accuracy of our statements. . . . The Federal Reserve dropped the central allegations against us. . . . We are confident the remaining issues would also have been resolved in our favor."
Altman added that because of Clifford's age and poor health and the expense of further litigation, it made no sense to continue to fight the Fed.
"I think this is an appropriate settlement," said Richard Small, assistant director in charge of enforcement and special investigations for the Fed and the man who headed the Fed's investigation of BCCI. "BCCI is a major case. We probably will never see one like this again," he said.
But the settlement still leaves many questions about BCCI unanswered. Though Altman and Clifford were accused of operating as the front men for illegal shareholders, Swaleh Naqvi, a principal in BCCI who is now in prison, has told the court that he never revealed to Clifford and Altman the true owners of the bank. And regulators acknowledge that they still are not sure who really owned it.
Although the Fed claimed victory today, Clifford and Altman were able to keep more than they lost. They get to keep the $10 million they made in selling shares of First American's holding company in 1988. They also retain other stock and securities they received as part of their First American compensation worth about $4.5 million.
The $5 million in stock they forfeited is part of the money held by the trustee who was appointed for First American. The value of the shares is based mostly on the sale of First American to First Union Inc. in 1993 for more than $400 million. The $5 million will be used to help repay depositors of BCCI around the world who lost $10.5 billion when BCCI was closed down by banking regulators. Those depositors, who were mostly overseas, have thus far received distributions of about 25 cents on the dollar. Another distribution is expected soon of about 15 cents on the dollar.
The investigation of BCCI's ownership of First American began in 1989. Clifford and Altman were at the center of a triangle of relationships involving BCCI, First American and their former law firm, Clifford & Warnke: They were BCCI's lawyers, the top executives of First American and representatives of the Middle Eastern shareholders who took over the bank in 1982.
In July 1992, Clifford and Altman were indicted on criminal charges of fraud and lying to banking regulators in the BCCI case by both the Justice Department and the district attorney of New York. On the same day, the Fed brought its charges that the two lied to the banking overseer about the true ownership of First American.
The Justice Department allowed New York District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau to try the case first. The criminal charges against Clifford were dropped because of his age and ill health. After a five-month trial here in 1993, Altman was acquitted of all the criminal charges. Clifford and Altman cited that outcome as their vindication and the Justice Department chose not to refile its charges. CAPTION: HIGHLIGHTS OF THE BCCI CASE 1977: Clark Clifford and Robert Altman defend former Carter administration official Bert Lance in congressional hearings into Lance's financial dealings. Lance then goes to work for BCCI as a consultant. 1978: BCCI hires Clifford and Altman to be its U.S. lawyers. BCCI clients begin purchasing Financial General Bankshares (FGB) stock on the advice of Lance. BCCI affiliates Credit and Commerce American Holdings and Credit and Commerce American Investment make a $70 million bid for FGB. 1980: FGB management finally agrees to a takeover for $180 million, including an injection of new capital. 1982: CCAH/CCAI takes over FGB, changing the bank's name to First American Bankshares; Clifford and Altman are named top executives. 1986: The CIA says it has evidence that BCCI illicitly owns First American. The CIA itself is using BCCI to help finance Iran-Contra deals and for intelligence operations in Afghanistan. 1989: Senate investigator Jack Blum, unable to interest federal prosecutors in information that BCCI owns First American, goes to New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who begins an investigation of BCCI. 1990: BCCI pleads guilty to money-laundering charges in Tampa and is fined a record $14.8 million. The Federal Reserve begins a formal investigation into the ownership of First American. 1991: The Washington Post reports that BCCI appears to secretly own First American. The Federal Reserve orders First American to stop doing business with BCCI.
The Bank of England and other regulators around the world shut down BCCI.
Clifford and Altman resign from First American.
Federal and state authorities settle charges against BCCI, which pleads guilty to racketeering charges involving money laundering and the illegal takeover of First American and other U.S. banks. The bank agrees to forfeit more than $550 million. 1992: Clifford and Altman are indicted on criminal charges of fraud and lying to banking regulators in the BCCI case. Criminal charges against Clifford are later dropped because of his age and ill health. 1993: Altman is acquitted of all criminal charges. Yesterday: Clifford and Altman agree to forfeit $5 million to settle Federal Reserve charges. SOURCES: News reports; "Dirty Money" by Mark Potts, Nicholas Kochan and Robert Whittington CAPTION: Clark Clifford CAPTION: Robert Altman CAPTION: A sign announces the closing of a London BCCI branch in 1991, the same year British regulators closed BCCI headquarters.